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There's Nothing New in the Ether

By WWWWolf in Op-Ed
Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 07:07:54 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

I live in an unfortunate country - in a sense that a major player in "mobile technology" is headquartered here, and the media seems to think the company in question is the Messiah that makes the country prosper.

Yet, this can be unbelieveably tiring... because there actually is nothing new under the sun.

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comments (24)
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The world is under a technological revolution. The wireless mobile technology - the wireless Internet, cellular phones, PDAs, digital cameras, and related devices will forever change the way we think of personal communication.

I just wrote that. The same paragraph could have been written by any technologically aware journalist, or a researcher explaining the affairs of the world to the masses. I'm not disputing it - that is undoubtedly true. The new technology is here to stay, and it will make lives different.

But there's always something in it that deeply disturbs me. The technologies are developed all the time, but no one really seems to know how to use them. The marketers and media seem to talk a lot of how the things are going to make everything better, yet the engineers are trying to iron out the warts from the edges and show somewhat less glorious products to the masses.

I'm not saying the new technology is useless - in fact, things are rather fine. Still, some people develop existing technology positive way, but forget that existing technology would do the same thing, often better.

I'm particularly amazed by the sudden need for GPRS/UMTS networks in Finland. According to the people who are pushing these things and favor the abandoning the slower GSM network that's used today, it will allow all sorts of cool things... broadband Internet connections in your pocket! Streaming digital video! Streaming music! Does that make me drool?

And Palm is switching from Motorola Dragonball processor series to ARM! Time to kiss goodbye to my slow 16MHz processor, two-color display and 2 megs of RAM and get several hundred megahertz and full color display with hundreds of megabytes of memory! Right?


Let's see what I use my mobile phone for. It's a Nokia 9110i, which is a cross between PDA and a phone. I can call people with it. (Yes, sometimes people forget that this is what they're made to do.) I can browse the web with it - admittedly a bit slowly. I can send E-mail with it (and read too, but see below). I send SMS messages to people I know, and SMSing and E-mailing is easy because the phone has a real keyboard and a half-VGA display.

But when I turn on the "Terminal emulator" thing, I can call to university's shell box, and read my mail. I can ssh to my own home computer. I can IRC. I can download files. I can browse web *really* fast because the phone only acts as a dumb terminal - using a 9600 bps link for terminals is fast enough for most uses.

Do I need a broadband connection for a dumb client? I can manage just fine without one.

And what about web browsing? Synchronizing interesting sites that I really would like to read when on the move to my AvantGo takes a minute or two over the same slow link. I don't need to read every site in existence when I'm travelling. And since I don't exactly want to watch the small, jerky video things on desktop computers, what makes the designing people think that watching the same on small cellphone display would make them any more attractive?

What about the Palm thing? I'm happy with my Palm m100. It reminds me of my lectures and is very nice to keep notes with. Just as I can do perfectly productive word processing with my 1MHz Commodore 64, I can keep perfectly good notes and calendar things with a 16MHz Palm.

I know some people who have a "powerful" PDA. When I've asked them what good a big processor can bring to PDA use, they think for many moments, finally replying "Oh, you can listen to MP3s. That's important!" But I have no use for that! I have a portable player that can store up to 80 minutes of uncompressed, high-quality digital audio - and the media is rather cheap these days, too, and available everywhere. No ripping and encoding phase required!

Oh, but what about "mobile gaming"? Surely I want to use my cellphone to play those interesting WAP games, those highly-thought-of, complex SMS games, those high-brow SMS TV chat shows, and things like that? No, not really... What about PDAs? Sorry, no. Until this year, I used a Gameboy - and this year, I bought a Gameboy Advance. And by simple comparison, I can say that the games available for Gameboy in early 1990s had vastly higher quality than the modern "mobile games" for SMS/WAP services - and GBA's games are just as good as the games for modern "super PDAs", often even better.

Last year, when I got a new computer, I also got a TV tuner card to do video captures. The Windows software installer reminded that I could get free information with the included software. What software? A Teletext viewer, of course! Do modern computer users, spoiled with Internet, really need a reminder that their TV can offer free (plus license fees, if any) high-resolution video picture that does not jerk or pixelate horribly or get cut off in the middle? Why am I reminded of the nerds in Donald Duck magazine: "A Pencil! These things still exist afterall! How do I power these on? Hey, is that black thing a solar cell?"

Indeed, the question is, why should we hurry to develop and use new things, when we do not even master the old ones yet? Why are the new technologies developed to needlessly replace the old ones?

This is not a "revolution". This is a retelling of the old tale with new words.

In the beginning was the Word. And these days, the Word was delivered to you as ones and zeros... with pop-under ads and compression artifacts.


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There's Nothing New in the Ether | 19 comments (18 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Misguided (5.00 / 5) (#1)
by jabber on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 12:33:55 PM EST

Developing new tech is not just about solving current problems. It's about allowing the synthesis of innovation. New technology can be applied in ways heretofore not considered.

A few years ago, I saw a bullet-hammer. It's essencially a pipe which when hit with a hammer fires a blank round which propels a metal cylinder to the other end of the pipe. This allows much greater force for driving nails into, say, concrete, than a hand-held hammer, with much greater precision and control than a two-handed sledge type. This device would not exist were it not for a gun.

I get very frustrated when people say that technological advancement isn't worth it because the status quo needs can be addressed with status quo solutions. How do you think the status quo rose to this level?

Sure, many initial applications of new tech are frivolous and pretty silly in retrospect.. It's people getting carried away with the things they can do, and not thinking about what is sensible. That takes time. Were it not for Guttenberg's desire to mass produce Bibles, education would still be reserved for the exclusive elite.

Why make a PDA in the first place, if paper and pencil suffice for today's problems - albeit not idealy? Why make pens and pencils, and paper, if clay tablets and sticks are adequate? Why carry those if you can just scribble on the wall of a cave with a charred stick?

Were it not for Nazi cryptography, the computer would not exist at all. Ooops! Sorry Mr. Godwin.. I guess I've gone and killed the thread..

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Woah cool... (4.00 / 2) (#8)
by pattern on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 06:00:17 PM EST

My boss's uncle actually invented the thing - showed it to us way before it went out on market. The mind boggles.

[ Parent ]
nazis and computers (none / 0) (#17)
by turmeric on Fri Nov 16, 2001 at 11:04:21 AM EST

what? thats a pretty serious thing to say, especially without mentioning any proof.

[ Parent ]
I beg to differ (4.83 / 6) (#2)
by theantix on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 12:40:42 PM EST

As an owner of "powerful" PDA, I can't disagree with you more. I have a shiny iPaq, and proud of it.
But when I turn on the "Terminal emulator" thing, I can call to university's shell box, and read my mail. I can ssh to my own home computer. I can IRC. I can download files. I can browse web *really* fast because the phone only acts as a dumb terminal - using a 9600 bps link for terminals is fast enough for most uses.
Obviously, you are more technically adept than most people, and have a simpler use requirement than most people. So if your idea of using the net is telnet and lynx, you probably don't need broadband. Not really any news there... but other people have more requirements than that, and I am one of them.
But I have no use for that! I have a portable player that can store up to 80 minutes of uncompressed, high-quality digital audio
You don't, but I do, and so do many other people. You see, if I already have an organizer, I don't want to carry around an extra device if I can avoid it. That goes for the gaming platform as well... how many devices are you going to carry around? I've got a cellphone and an iPaq, that's already too much for me... you suggest adding a MP3 player and a gameboy as well? That'll be the day.

It is exactly the same priciple as with desktop computing: I have a lot of spare power there too. I would rather have an overpowered machine that can accomplish many purposes, rather than purchasing many different computers for every indiviual task. What I would really love would be a cellphone/iPaq combination that I could use those headsets with, so I only have to carry around one little device for all of my telecom and computing needs. Less is more...

You sir, are worse than Hitler!

heh (3.00 / 1) (#3)
by core10k on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 12:57:15 PM EST

Sounds like where I live. Canada has our own Nokia, except it's called Nortel here. Especially known as one of the best places to work - if you have absolutely no personality, love red tape and beaurocracy (their byzantine hiring practices make it seem like they're desperate trying NOT to find acceptable employees) and want all your entertainment needs provided by your corporate masters (big grin).

Telecommunications company? Cult? Both? You be the judge.

Adequate performance/bandwidth/storage/media (4.60 / 5) (#5)
by pavlos on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 02:59:07 PM EST

There is such a thing as adequate CPU performance or adequate communications bandwidth. The arbiter, of course, is not technology but the type of content that artists, writers, and the world in general make available.

For example, if you wish to read books and/or magazines a few hundred MHz and Kbps will do fine. As soon as pages with pictures appear instantly, further performance will not enhance your enjoyment of this particular medium.

For audio, conventional widom is that a few tens of Kbps is sufficient for voice and about 1.5Mbps for music (uncompressed). Personally I'd say this is just adequate and the amount where you get no further benefit is a few times higher, but still it's a reasonable amount of bandwidth and the content, not technology determines it.

For movies, the curreng DVD storage size of a few GB is clearly inadequate, as it is nowhere near the quality of a new 35mm movie print, never mind 70mm. In other words it falls short of some level of media reproduction that a user might reasonably expect. But still, if we set a reasonable limit comparable to 70mm film, such as 10k x 6k pixels x 48bits x 24fps this is still a reasonable 70Gbps uncompressed. I imagine that a similarly high-ish but plausible CPU rate would apply for decompresion.

So, in every case, it is the content and not the digital technology that decides what level of bandwidth or processing power is really needed. Your article touches on this by observing that there are certain types of content that you are interested in having on your mobile device (eg. news) and others you don't (eg. movies). Indeed, this is why the Pilot is so successful.

To go one step further then, the factor that most strongly determines the bandwidth required by a certain medium is not artistic or other creative considerations but three analog technologies: Recoding technology, playback technology, and the human sensory system.

Generally, analog recording and playback technology for sound (in other words microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers) seems to be comfortably ahead of the human auditory system in terms of information handling capacity. A high-quality studio recording may not sound identical to a live performance but it's pretty close, and whatever difference exists is probably not due to a lack of information content.

For movies and pictures in general, I think analog recording technology (cameras, films, and projectors) has some way to go before convincing the eye that it is looking at a real scene, even if we accept the artistic limitation of a single viewpoint. It could probably get there though within an order of magnitude of improvement.

Currently, our commonly available digital reproduction technology for sound ranges from reasonable (CDs) to barely acceptable (sound cards) compared to professional analog equipment. For movies and pictures in general, most digital media (cameras and screens) are utterly inadequate, orders of magnitude below the resolution of a printed page, a low-ASA 35mm slide film, of a 70mm movie at the cinema.

As you pointed out, then, it is the screen and speakers, and not the CPU, of the Pilot that make you not want to watch movies on it, and these generally improve slower than CPU and bandwidth. Therefore I predict that, as CPU and bandwidth mature, each type of media in turn will reach a stage of having enough of those, and will stop driving the need for new CPU and bandwidth technology. Further technological growth will be pushed by new media, such as games, and by improvements in boring tranducer technology, such as screens, that make it worthwhile to deliver higher bandwidth to the human user.


eh (none / 0) (#14)
by core10k on Thu Nov 15, 2001 at 11:37:04 AM EST

You have a factual error which invalidates my ability to take you seriously...

But still, if we set a reasonable limit comparable to 70mm film, such as 10k x 6k pixels x 48bits x 24fps this is still a reasonable 70Gbps uncompressed.

The phrase you were looking for was "an unreasonable 560 TERABITS uncompressed"

[ Parent ]
Eh, what am I missing? (none / 0) (#18)
by pavlos on Fri Nov 16, 2001 at 03:43:29 PM EST

10000 * 6000 * 48 bit * 24 sec-1= 6.912e+10 bit sec-1 ~= 70Gbit/sec
Now, I can see the point that after two hours this will accumulate a hefty 500Tbits, or 60TBytes approximately, which means you'd have to wait another 10-15 years before casually storing these things on your hard drive.


[ Parent ]

Whoa, way off. (none / 0) (#16)
by Sunir on Thu Nov 15, 2001 at 09:45:24 PM EST

if you wish to read books and/or magazines a few hundred MHz and Kbps will do fine

You'd better sit down before you see what I do at work, because I think a few hundred MHz would be enough to fly your PDA to the moon and back (look that up--it'll scare you). With room to spare for an MP3 player and a kernel compile.

You can do a lot within 12MHz if you don't think in Java or UML. Code like Fortran! The really limiting factors are bandwidth and heap size. The acrobatics we do to get around those problems are insane. I often joke that I have no idea how to represent the system in UML.

Now, on the other hand, the iPaq is a portable desktop. Heck, it's almost as fast as my desktop. The reason why it feels so slow is its operating system was not written for embedded systems from the ground up. But if you ignore the GUI, it's blazing. Oh, the demos I could show you would really scare you.

Hell, they scare me. I develop primarily for the Palm and RIM Blackberry as these are really lowest common denominators. The iPaq is at least 20 times faster. For our normal demonstration content, the response is instantaneous on the iPaq. It's sick. It's like running inside an emulator. I'd bet you could write a Palm emulator on an iPaq that'd be faster than the Palm itself if you knew what you were doing.

Ok, enough bragging. ;)

"Look! You're free! Go, and be free!" and everyone hated it for that. --r
[ Parent ]

Self-Correcting Errors (4.00 / 2) (#6)
by grout on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 03:11:27 PM EST

If the market doesn't materialize then the company with poor vision will lose money. This won't prevent the original stupidity, but it will discourage future stupidity. As a former employee of VA Linux, I know something about the warning value of bad examples.

Remember: "Men are not hanged because they steal horses. Men are hanged so that horses may not be stolen."
Chip Salzenberg, Free-Floating Agent of Chaos

Optimal Profit and Choice Control (4.50 / 2) (#9)
by jabber on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 07:10:41 AM EST

I think that this is the single reason behind the sad state of USian technology. The regulators of technology are in the cash pocket of the companies that deliver it. These companies know that they can milk the consumer for more money by offering the occasional useful feature in a flood of useless ones. The useless features create the illusion of competition and progress, without actually adding appreciable value.

Microsoft markets a new version of Word, just because you can now select the color of the spelling-error-underline squiggle. Similarly cell phone makers sell the perception of obsolescence by changing the form factor of a phone slightly, and marketting it as a 'better' model, while in truth, more often than not, the new phone is actually lower quality than it's predecessor.

Converting to the GSM standard alone would do great things to the USian cellular market. But this would of course hurt the cell phone makers profitability by depriving them of releasing the same model in multiple flavors.

The manufacturers would then have to compete more on features, and brand loyalty building maneuvers such as durability, UI design, battery life and range. Yes, these are currently points of competition, but they are easily obscured from the less discerning customer with color screens, and interchangable faceplates.

Not that I have anything against faceplates mind you. I just think that selling that as a 'feature' is an insult to a thinking customer.

Europe has Bluetooth-aware phones. The best I've seen in the US is IRdA phones, which, while better than nothing, isn't as good as Bluetooth.

I don't want to manually dial the number from my PDA. I don't want to hold the PDA in one hand, level with the phone in the other. I want to select a name on my Pilot, press dial, set the PDA down and use the phone.. Or better yet, talk directly to the PDA (or hands-free kit). Further, I want the Bluetooth module to be an opional chip in the Pilot, not a permanent feature. The SD slot(s) on the 5xx series of Pilots can host this. Why doesn't it? The Visor Springboard can host it. Where's the module?

But I don't want the PDA and phone to be the same device. I want transparency between the two. I want the flexibility of choosing my own features, from the manufacturers of my choice. I'm certain that there isn't a significant technical reason why this isn't done. The reason is financial fear. It's the same closedmindedness that keeps Apple crippled while the commodity based PC rules the roost.

Until the phone makers milk out the last drop of profit, they will not give me the tech I want. To do so would give me too much choice, too many opportunities to choose my own solution, rather than pay them for theirs.. And this is the essence of American Capitalism, the RIAA/MPAA dilema and in fact, many policies of The US Government, Inc.

On a related note, most control freaks are such because of a deep-rooted fear of inadequacy. After all, if you give someone the choice of staying, they might leave.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

I wish... (3.50 / 2) (#7)
by Jihad on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 04:39:19 PM EST

I wish we (as in Americans) had a service provider who offered a phone like that one. I have been yearning after a Nokia Communicator for a long time, and now I hear you talk about telneting home to check your email and stuff I can only dream of. I really dislike American cellular companies.

Long-standing problem (5.00 / 4) (#10)
by epepke on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 11:18:14 AM EST

User-interface gurus such as Donald Norman have been saying for a long time that appropriate levels of functionality coupled with an interface that matches the user model are the way to go. I have been emotionally committed to this idea for a quarter century, but I am no longer practically committed to it.

The reason for this is that the marketplace does not seem to work this way. Take the case of Palm. I wrote about 40 pages of a book I was going to complete about the forces for mediocre user interfaces and bloatware back in February of this year. I used the Palm, with its clean and appropriate interface, as one of only a few hopes for the future.

I will have to revise or omit that section, because Compaq has been hammering Palm sales with its iPaq. From a technical or user standpoint, this makes absolutely no sense. They are completely different devices. The Palm user model is that of a "smart notepad," which only incidentally contains a computer to make it work. (So does my watch, but it remains a watch.) The iPaq has the user model of a miniature desktop system. It makes very little sense that they should be in competition at all. (My Palm IIIc has a backlit screen that makes it actually usable as a flashlight, but I don't think that flashlight manufacturers are too worried).

Yet I have seen articles from people who should know better putting them in direct competition. After all, they look similar. They can both be called a PDA, sort of, and the iPaq is flashier. Palm's decision to drop the Dragonball for an AMD is doubtless an intelligent decision based on what is happening in the marketplace, and I'm sure the designers of the excellent Palm OS are grinding their teeth. In a few years, Palm will probably go the way of Apple, being forced by competition to introduce massive feature bloat, improving functionality only a little while hampering usability, and still losing to an OS that expects a user manually to clean out files from the Temp directory occasionally.

Of course, you don't need the bloat. People claim they don't want the bloat. The bloat is, however, what sells.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

Palm is actually slightly below spec (none / 0) (#13)
by pavlos on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 07:18:22 PM EST

I agree with most of your points. In my opinion, though, Palm's move to the ARM processor is a sound technical move because the current Palm is in fact slightly below the required spec that would let it deliver "appropriate functionality" well.

Grafitti recognition is only just slower than one would like, occasionally missing perfectly reasonable strokes. Scrolling and screen changes can be seen to paint the screen from top to bottom, when they should obviously be instant. Doodle is too slow for production use, which of course is to scribble something and show it to someone else.

Maybe they'll add enough memory and pixel real estate for a good dictionary while they're at it. And possibly even make ToDo items appear in the calendar!


[ Parent ]

Remember Wirth's Law (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by epepke on Thu Nov 15, 2001 at 01:19:34 PM EST

"As machines become faster, programmers become lazier."

You may be right on the M100's, but my Palm IIIc, which uses a Dragonball, is just fine. You mention Doodle. Funny thing about that. When I got my Palm IIIc, I noticed that it didn't have a scribbler. So, I wrote one. It was my first Palm project, and it took me two days (the second day was for letting me change the pen size). At the 3 by 3 pen size, you can just barely get sluggishness if you watch very carefully and scribble all across the screen as fast as you can. Much faster than Doodle.

You also mention scrolling/redraw speeds. My third Palm project was to supplement the graphics library with some filled polygons. I did some work using the off-screen buffers. Completely smooth.

Of course, I'm 40 years old, and so I cut my teeth on computers when they were slow. My Palm IIIc has five times the speed of a machine I used to do 8-bit animation on almost fifteen years ago. Also, I'm good. It's a bit of a sore point with me, as I spent about a year and a half unemployed while listening to companies whine about how they couldn't find anybody. There's also a dumbth mentality amongst most managers about how it's bad to hire anyone who has more than the minimal skills necessary. But I digress...

I don't think the problem with Palm applications is the processor. I think the problem is the laziness of the coders.

And what of the other direction? Will more CPU make everything better? The fact that Word is sluggish on a 500 MHz processor isn't due to the speed of the processor, you know. It seems to me highly likely that increments in processor speed will always continue only ever to provide short-term relief, only on programs designed for slower hardware. In summary, I conclude the following:

  • In the absence of good development, no amount of hardware improvement will ever be technically good enough in the long run.
  • In the presence of good development, the hardware requirements are considerably less than most people think they are.

I would like to see Palm devices with a bigger screen, too. Unfortunately, you'll see a lot of older applications just show in the upper left corner. This is partially due to one of the very few flaws in the API.

What I don't want to see are umpteen different kinds of widgets, gizmos, and deelybobbers to do the same thing. Nor do I want to see little pictures of VCR front panels (because everybody knows that VCR's are, like, so totally easy to use for everyone). Nor do I want 90% of the CPU to be eaten up by irritating flashing logos. Unfortuately, I probably won't get my wish.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
It's not about you. (none / 0) (#11)
by Rainy on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 03:13:20 PM EST

If all industry in your country was focused on satisfying your tastes and usage patterns, you'd have a point. However, I imagine they want to make as much money as possible so they pitch to as wide an audience as they can. And tastes differ. You don't want streaming mp3s to your pda, but other people may want that.
Rainy "Collect all zero" Day
Incoming clue (2.00 / 1) (#12)
by trhurler on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 05:17:57 PM EST

I've talked to a number of people from Finland(we have a partner there.) Without exaggerating, I can say that most of them think the wireless boom is the best thing ever. The market is there for what most people want(ie, for what will make money,) and not what you personally think is cool.

As for your economy, Nokia pretty much IS the reason it is booming. Without them, you wouldn't have drawn much of anything in the tech sector, whereas right now there is a hell of a business in tech there, and rather than being a candidate to replace Japan as the perceived high tech capital of the world, you'd just be some backwater that spawned Linus Torvalds. I suggest you make the most of it, whether or not you personally happen to want a PDA that can make your breakfast and give head.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

Incoming web designer rant! (none / 0) (#19)
by WWWWolf on Sun Dec 16, 2001 at 06:40:38 PM EST

As for your economy, Nokia pretty much IS the reason it is booming. Without them, you wouldn't have drawn much of anything in the tech sector, whereas right now there is a hell of a business in tech there, and rather than being a candidate to replace Japan as the perceived high tech capital of the world...

I'm not really saying Nokia's technology is really bad. I'm just saying that its current applications are just somewhat... uh, unnecessary.

It's like this: The cellphones are actually pretty cool. The SMS service is a good thing for personal communication.

Okay, I can get VR's train timetables for specific cities as SMS message. But an year ago I couldn't use 9110i's web browser too well to read the train schedules from the web. "Sorry, fool, get Netscape 4 or MSIE 4."

I'm *so* happy VR got a Clue and now the timetables display just fine.

But do I really need a broadband network and graphical web browser to read train timetables? You bet - if you ask the "new media gurus" who think mobile appliances are hideously underpowered for any serious web browsing. (I have read some of that sort of discussions in the local Usenet groups...)

I think the content makers want the broadband to the cell phones to make... well, more of the same.

Today, they have Zobmondo on SMS. Tomorrow, they'll have something dumber than that on broadband cellular...

This is an aspect I forgot to mention about web development: People make "better and better" web pages and forget that there people with "light browsers" - Lynxers, blind users, PDA users, cellphone users, people who browse web via drum signals or smoke signals, etc etc etc...

Sometimes, it's a good to think: Is there some information here for which you don't want to waste the 1.2 gigaherz processor on? Why make a page for HUGE computers when you barely master the skills to make a simple and effective page?

Maybe I just shouldn't have posted the article anyway, the ideas were... uh, stupid.

-- Weyfour WWWWolf, a lupine technomancer from the cold north...

[ Parent ]
There's Nothing New in the Ether | 19 comments (18 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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